4/26, Marvin Sterling, “On the Cultural Politics of Tradition”

In Conjunction with the EthNoise! and Caribbean Studies Workshops, The Art and Politics of East Asia Workshop Presents:

On the Cultural Politics of Tradition:
“Domesticating” Dancehall Reggae in Contemporary Japan

Marvin D. Steling
Associate Professor
Department of Anthropology
Indiana University, Bloomington


For 60 years, the “sound system” has been the sonic heart of Jamaican dancehall culture. Sound systems are small groups of young men (and more rarely women) who play Jamaican music and banter in patois over high-powered audio systems before hundreds or thousands of attendees. In recent years, this subculture has reached international shores. In 1999, Japan-based Mighty Crown entered an otherwise all-Jamaican sound system competition in Brooklyn, New York, and to the surprise of many, won the event. Three years later, Junko Kudo, a dancer part of Japan’s burgeoning “reggae dance” scene, was similarly the only Japanese performer in Jamaica’s National Dancehall Queen Contest; she, too, won her event. Dancehall reggae has since become a sustained subcultural, and even in some measure, mainstream popular cultural phenomenon in Japan, attracting millions of fans and making the country one of the world’s most vital reggae markets. In this presentation, I trace the roots of Japanese reggae from the early 1970s until the present, focusing on the musical productive and performative strategies through which a distinctive “J-reggae” has come into being. I argue that these strategies significantly invoke discourses of the traditional that are deeply interlinked with those of modernity in Japan, a modernity shaped by the specter of Western domination that Japanese have long had to negotiate. I focus on the link between these discourses of the traditional and a contemporary ethos of cultural internationalism in recessionary Japan, in which many Japanese reggae practitioners imagine global southern countries like Jamaica as simultaneously signs of these artists’ cultural and sociopolitical cosmopolitanism, but also as tradition-bound and thus instructive symbols of Japan’s own potential rebirth.

There will be no precirculated paper for this session.

*Not the change in time and place from our normal meeting*

Professor Sterling’s talk will be held on Thursday, April 26th at 4:30, in Goodspeed Hall, Room 205.

This workshop is sponsored by the Council on Advanced Studies in the Humanities. Persons who believe they may need assistance to participate fully, please contact the coordinator (Daniel Johnson) in advance at: djohn at uchicago.edu


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